The 2017 Newport Folk Festival – Saturday Highlights

Saturday at The 2017 Newport Folk Festival kicked off with the smart, old-school groove of Chicano Batman, blending 60’s soul with L.A. psychedelia, like a funkier, sassier version of the Beatles, with a Latin flair.

Though he grew up in Maryland, singer-songwriter Jalen N’Gonda found his roots musically after moving to Liverpool, U.K. in 2014. His performance at Newport Saturday, a breathtaking and soulful performance from one man and his guitar, was N’Gonda’s first-ever U.S.A. tour date.

Marlon Williams, a New Zealand-based singer-songwriter, inspired a standing ovation after his second song, long before his set was over. Williams charmed the crowd with elvis-inspired dance moves, Roy-Orbison-esque love ballads, and goofy songs like “I’m A Vampire Again” — a song inspired by a night out to the L.A. Symphony on Halloween, high as a kite and dressed up as Nosferatu. Williams pulled from his repertoire of slower, crooner classics, including “When I Was A Young Girl” and “Dark Child,” both from his collection of songs-as-character-studies with fictional narratives, like the high-energy “Hello Miss Lonesome.” Williams also played a few songs from his upcoming album, inspired by a real-life breakup, with more honest and less fantastical lyrics, and the same broken-hearted soulful spirit.

Meanwhile, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon hopped on the Fort stage with mystery set Grandma’s Hands Band, providing musical support and then belting out the Bill Withers’ hit, “Aint No Sunshine.”

Drive By Truckers leaned heavily on 2016’s American Band, a politically-charged and extraordinarily insightful album exploring racial and political divides in modern America, from a Midwestern, everyman perspective. The album deals with issues of gun violence, police brutality, the deaths of Trayon Martin and Michael Brown, Black Lives Matter, and censorship under fear of terrorism. “Ramon Casiano” tells the story of a former NRA leader who shot and killed a 15-year-old Latinx boy in 1931, and ostensibly got away with murder.

The lyrics tell a timeless story, poignantly reflecting on today’s political climate:

 

He had the makings of a leader

Of a certain kind of men

Who need to feel the world’s against them

Out to get them if it can

Men whose triggers pull their fingers

men who would rather fight than win

United in a revolution

Like in mind and like in skin

 

Even if you think you don’t know The Decemberist’s offshoot Offa Rex, chances are you’ve heard most of the band, and more than a few of their songs. The project was conceived less than two years ago in the minds (and Twitter inboxes) of Decemberist’s frontman Colin Meloy and singer and multi-instrumentalist Olivea Chaney, exploring and reviving old English folk tunes with a unique and modern twist. Newport audiences were lucky to experience one of only five concerts the band has planned on their tour, incorporating psychedelic instrumental touches with classic songs. Offa Rex worked through their debut album The Queen of Hearts, with a setlist pulling mainly from 19th-century England, or as Meloy called it, “folk music with a capital F.”

Angel Olsen’s raw and arrestingly personal lyrics transformed the festival’s biggest stage, surrounded by a giant field and an ocean harbor, into an intimate club. After her first song, 2014’s “High & Wild,” the sun peeked out and the rainclouds that had been threatening to burst all day floated away. Angel’s soaring guitar and haunting vocals floated above the crowd on songs like “Sister” and “Woman,” off her slightly more upbeat, if still incredibly heartbreaking album, “My Woman.” Olsen brought out My Morning Jacket’s Jim James on guitar and reminisced about the last time she found herself at the festival, “last time I was here I saw Roger Waters,” she said, “and I cried.”

The Avett Brother’s set was a high-energy dance party, with Tania Elizabeth moving about the stage on backup vocals and violin, and Joe Kwon’s head-banging and long-hair flipping moves around the cello. The crowd, already on their feet, whooped and hollered in response to one pointed verse from “Head Full of Doubt, Road Full of Promise,” the title track of their 2009 album of the same name. “When nothing is owed or deserved or expected,” Scott Avett sang, “and your life doesn’t change by the man that’s elected.” The crowd cheered equally as loud for “Black Hole Sun,” a tribute to the late Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell.

Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy was not there to make small talk. “I don’t feel like talking,” he said, curtly, before launching into a relaxed but jam-packed set, including a few Wilco & Billy Bragg songs, including “One by One,” “Christ For President,” and finally, “California” with an appearance by Bragg himself.

Photos by Tori Bedford